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Teofimo Lopez, Shakur Stevenson, Felix Verdejo looking to make statements on Crawford-Khan card

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Two top prospects and a talented rehab project feature on Saturday’s ESPN pay-per-view undercard.

Vasiliy Lomachenko v Jose Pedraza Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Boxing’s pay-per-view undercards have a reputation for being absolute garbage, with most fans expecting they’re going to be “treated to” a series of insignificant mismatches meant to serve as filler for the TV broadcast, held in arenas that are usually just starting to actually fill up by the time the last one ends.

Since we’ve had three very recent pay-per-views, let’s look at the pay-per-view undercards for each one.

Wilder vs Fury, Dec. 1 (Showtime PPV)

  • Jarrett Hurd demolished woefully overmatched Jason Welborn via fourth round knockout in a 154-pound world title fight
  • Luis Ortiz knocked out Travis Kauffman in a heavyweight mismatch where Kauffman was totally outclassed
  • Joe Joyce knocked out Joe Hanks in two minutes, 25 seconds

This was a crap undercard.

Pacquiao vs Broner, Jan. 19 (Showtime PPV)

  • Marcus Browne won a 12-round decision over Badou Jack in an actual meaningful light heavyweight bout
  • Nordine Oubaali beat Rau’shee Warren to win the vacant WBC bantamweight title, which was also an actual good matchup and a good fight
  • Hugo Ruiz beat Alberto Guevara in a matchup of featherweight also-rans

It wasn’t perfect, but all in all this was a perfectly good undercard.

Spence vs Garcia, March 16 (FOX PPV)

  • David Benavidez sparked out J’Leon Love in two rounds in a super middleweight fight
  • Luis Nery dominated McJoe Arroyo over four rounds at bantamweight
  • Chris Arreola bulldozed Jean Pierre Augustin in a weak heavyweight fight that went into the third

Benavidez and Nery are legitimate fighters, world title-level guys, true top contenders. Their fights wound up relatively easy money, and none of this was competitive when all was said and done.

As there’s no putting the shit back in the donkey, as Tony Soprano once said, there’s probably no truly saving the concept of the pay-per-view undercard. Sure, occasionally you’ll get a Jack-Browne fight, or go back to 2013 when we had Garcia-Matthysse on the Mayweather-Canelo card. You’ll get some world title matchups, like Oubaali-Warren, that aren’t particularly marketable otherwise.

If you don’t have stuff like to throw on the show, the pay-per-view undercard — in my opinion, at least — is probably best used as a showcase for prospects, featured in fights that are at least solid for where potential stars of the next generation of boxing are at in their careers.

ESPN enters the pay-per-view boxing game on Saturday night, with Top Rank promoting Crawford vs Khan at Madison Square Garden. The undercard is probably not going to get a more casual fan to show up early, but we do have two legitimate high-end prospects in appropriate fights, plus an intriguing opener featuring a guy who was not too long ago thought to be a potential future star of the sport, trying to make his way back while he’s still young.

Vasiliy Lomachenko v Jose Pedraza Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Lightweight Teofimo Lopez (12-0, 10 KO) is one of the sport’s most compelling young fighters. The 21-year-old from Brooklyn represented Honduras at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Still a teenager, he lost a competitive opening round fight to France’s Sofiane Oumiha, who would go on to win the silver medal.

Here’s what I said about Lopez after his one fight in Rio:

I liked the look of Lopez a lot... ... He’s got real pro potential, just like (Team USA’s Karlos) Balderas, and very much a pro style. ... Lopez felt he’d done enough to win, but the judges saw it differently. Remember Lopez’s name.

Two months after his trip to Rio, Lopez signed with Top Rank, then made his debut on the Manny Pacquiao-Jessie Vargas card in Nov. 2016, buried deep on the off-TV prelims, of course. He was knocked down in his pro debut, but dropped Ishwar Siqueiros four times and won in two.

As he’s stepped up his competition, he’s really shined. He hasn’t faced top opponents so far, nor should he have been expected to, but he’s been matched at least fairly aggressively recently.

He faced once-beaten William Silva last July, dropping him three times en route to a sixth round stoppage. In December, he absolutely flattened Mason Mendard in 44 seconds, then got a little mainstream sports attention because he wore a Kyler Murray jersey and did the Heisman pose in the ring after the fight was over.

In his last fight on Feb. 2, he took former two-division world title challenger Diego Magdaleno apart, brutally knocked him out in the seventh round. Lopez’s arguably excessive celebration led to Diego’s brother, former 122-pound world titleholder Jessie Magdaleno, trying to go after Teofimo, who shrugged it all off. He had people talking again.

Lopez has already attracted at least the beginnings of buzz for him to face Vasiliy Lomachenko, the two-time Olympic gold medalist, three-division pro titleholder, and current top lightweight and pound-for-pound contender. And to be clear, that buzz comes from two types: people who think Lopez might have that level of talent, and people who find him a little obnoxious and would like to see Lomachenko humble him.

He’s flashy, powerful, quick, and talented. He’s a personality. He’s got star potential.

On Saturday, he faces Edis Tatli (31-2, 10 KO), a 31-year-old fighter, originally from Kosovo, now based in Finland. Outside of one 2012 fight in Russia, Tatli has fought his entire, 11-plus-year pro career in Finland.

A former European champion, Tatli is a perfectly reasonable next step for Lopez. Tatli did challenge for a secondary world title once, back in 2014, when he lost a decision to Richar Abril, and he also lost to Francesco Patera in May 2017, which he avenged seven months later. Most recently, he fought in August, beating Frank Urquiaga by decision to retain the European title, which he vacated shortly after.

Tatli is a fine professional, but Lopez should look good here. He’s experienced and solid, but a little basic, and figures to be tailor-made for the sort of flashiness that Lopez loves to put on display.

Vasyl Lomachenko v Guillermo Rigondeaux Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Featherweight Shakur Stevenson (10-0, 6 KO) is another top prospect and another former Olympian, representing the United States at Rio 2016 and winning silver at bantamweight, losing in the finals to the extremely talented Cuban Robeisy Ramirez, who had won flyweight gold in 2012.

The 21-year-old Stevenson, a southpaw, waited until April 2017 to turn pro, and has done very well so far. There have been some questions about his power, but in his last two, he’s easily stopped Viorel Simon and Jessie Cris Rosales, and four of his last five victories have been stoppages.

The other questions about Stevenson are outside the ring; he was charged with battery last summer for his role in a Miami parking lot brawl, and video of that incident recently surfaced, putting Shakur back in the news for reasons he’d rather not be. But it’s boxing, and legal issues are nothing new. He’ll fight on Saturday, his fourth bout since he was charged.

Stevenson has been calling for a legitimate step up for a while now, and on Saturday he gets it, facing former title challenger Christopher “Pitufo” Diaz (24-1, 16 KO).

Diaz, a 24-year-old Puerto Rican, fought for the vacant WBO super featherweight title last July, losing a game decision against Japan’s Masayuki Ito. He moved down to 126 pounds after, knocking out David Berna in 68 seconds on Nov. 24 in San Juan.

This is a huge chance for Diaz, who is still young himself and has the potential for plenty of upside. He’s working with trainer Freddie Roach, who says he believes Diaz can pull off the upset.

“(Stevenson) has 10 fights!” Roach said. “I’ve watched every one of Shakur’s fights, and he’s OK, he throws combinations. Is he beatable? Yes. Have to fight the right fight, but my guy can do it.”

Stevenson, of course, feels differently.

“I’m the top dog of all the young’uns coming up,” he said this week. “I can’t wait to show everybody once again that I’m the best up-and-coming fighter in boxing.”

On paper, I’d at least say this matchup is tougher for Stevenson than Tatli is for Lopez, but that may be because I see Stevenson’s upside a little more limited than that of Lopez.

Jose Ramirez v Amir Imam Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

And then there’s Felix Verdejo. If you’re a serious boxing follower, you know Verdejo, and you’ve heard about him for nearly seven years now. He fought at the 2012 Olympics for Puerto Rico, winning two fights before losing a fairly competitive bout with Vasiliy Lomachenko, who was en route to his second gold medal. Lomachenko would later credit Verdejo with giving him his toughest fight.

So here he was, a 19-year-old fighter, talented, good amateur pedigree, and Puerto Rican, which brings with it an audience that can make a fighter a real star. In recent times, Felix “Tito” Trinidad gave way to Miguel Cotto, and it was expected that Coto would give way to Verdejo.

Top Rank’s Todd duBoef said at the time of the signing, “Felix is a young, exciting athlete who won many gold medals as an amateur. Between his pedigree and our expertise in developing champions, we anticipate the evolution of Puerto Rico’s next future star.”

The hype on Verdejo was so heavy, in fact, that it was almost certain to betray him, at least in hindsight. By the time he’d gotten his pro record to 21-0 in 2016, he was being criticized for being underwhelming in recent performances. Some of that was legitimate, there was a sense that maybe he wasn’t quite all he was cracked up to be. Some of it, though, was because he won three of four fights by decision instead of knockout.

After a TKO-5 win over Juan Jose Martinez in June 2016, there was talk of Verdejo fighting Terry Flangan, who held the WBO lightweight title at the time, on a Manny Pacquiao card in November.

But in August, the prized prospect was injured in a motorcycle accident in Puerto Rico. He returned in Feb. 2017 in San Juan, looking a little rusty, which was understandable, in a decision win over Oliver Flores.

The talk for a fight with Flanagan came back in the summer of 2017, and eventually the deal was made for September of that year. Flanagan got hurt, though, and the fight was called off. Verdejo scheeduled another fight with Mexican veteran Antonio Lozada Jr, but this time, it was Verdejo who was injured and had to pull out. In the meantime, that WBO title shot slipped through Verdejo’s fingers, and a lot of the buzz around Verdejo had died off.

After 13 months out of the ring, Verdejo returned to action against the previously-scheduled Lozada, a classic Puerto Rico vs Mexico matchup. Verdejo looked rusty again, but this time he didn’t come out with his hand raised. Lozada dropped and stopped him in the 10th and final round, handing Verdejo his first pro loss.

In November of last year, Verdejo quietly returned in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, beating journeyman Yardley Armenta Cruz via second round knockout. He gets back to real action on Saturday against Bryan Vasquez (37-3, 20 KO), a 31-year-old from Costa Rica, a former interim titleholder at 130 pounds. His two losses have been to Javier Fortuna and Ray Beltran, both by decision.

Verdejo is still only 25 years old, which in some ways seems crazy, in part because it feels like if he doesn’t win on Saturday, it could be all but over for him. And he feels that pressure, too, it seems, telling the Los Angeles Times, “This fight defines my boxing career.”

Vasquez was more skeptical when the fight was made official in early March.

“In order for me to lose to Verdejo, he’s going to have to kill me,” he said. “In order for him to kill me, he’s going to have to be willing to die with me. And he’s already shown that he’s not willing to die in there.”

Of the three pay-per-view undercard fights on Saturday, this might be the most interesting on paper. There’s still upside with Verdejo, still potential. But this isn’t some creampuff opponent, either, and if Verdejo just doesn’t have what he was thought to have only a few years ago, this could be the end of the line for that push.